School Improvement: Grant Fund Distribution

State educational agencies (SEAs) may choose to allocate school improvement funds (i.e., funds under ESEA section 1003) to local educational agencies (districts) through formula or competitive grants. Under ESEA section 1003, each SEA must set aside seven percent of its Title I, Part A allocation for districts with schools identified for improvement. Of this seven percent, SEAs distribute at least 95 percent to districts to serve schools implementing Comprehensive Support and Improvement (CSI) and Targeted Support and Improvement (TSI) activities. The remaining five percent of the seven percent of funds may be used by the SEA to carry out section 1003, including creating the method used to allocate funds, monitoring and evaluating the use of funds expenditure, and, as appropriate, reducing barriers and providing operational flexibilities for CSI and TSI schools. SEAs must include on their annual report card which districts and schools received ESEA section 1003 school improvement funds, including the amount each school received and the types of strategies they implemented with the funds.


Common Challenges and Potential Risks

Schools and districts may face common challenges around grant-fund distribution. These common challenges could include the following:

  • SEAs must consider whether competitive grants, formula distribution, or a hybrid approach will be most effective for distributing funds.
  • SEAs may be unclear on how to help districts and schools plan for sustainability at the end of the grant.
  • SEAs may have trouble deciding how to best encourage districts and schools to make effective and equitable use of existing resources, including time, staff, and community partners.
  • SEAs may be unclear on how to align multiple funding sources to support a coordinated approach to school improvement.
  • Districts may tend to limit spending to activities the SEA approved in prior years and that have passed the auditing process, even if the evidence base for those investments is not clearly defined to enhance student outcomes.
  • Districts may lack evidence-based strategies that sufficiently address problems identified by their root cause analysis.


Strategies for Managing Grants and Distributing Funds

Some examples of strategies for grants management and funds distribution include:

  • Districts can identify connections between spending rules and program delivery to encourage improved communication and coordination between Title I and school improvement staff within the district central offices.
  • SEAs can help districts spend more efficiently by supplying guidance that offers examples of specific forms of spending districts can support with U.S. Department of Education grant funds. At minimum, the SEA should explain to districts the criteria they use when assessing their proposals for spending section 1003 school improvement funds. The goal of this spending guidance should be to provide clarity to district spending options.
  • SEAs can clearly communicate their expectations around how funds should be used (rather than setting restrictive requirements or burdensome monitoring expectations). This may include using positive terms when discussing expectations and making time to remind districts of those expectations. SEAs may prioritize funding for school improvement plans (funding proposals) that aligns with state priorities for school improvement.
  • SEAs can provide technical assistance when needed to reduce the need for multiple grant application revisions. When providing technical assistance, SEAs may consider coordinating their efforts between different SEA offices to reduce inconsistencies in communication. These efforts may ultimately speed up the application review process, reduce administrative burdens, and raise the quality of school improvement plans for grant applications.
Examples of state approaches to grant-fund distribution

Districts with CSI schools are eligible to apply for school improvement funds (under section 1003) through a competitive process. Massachusetts gives preference to applications that identify evidence-based practices that the SEA has found to be successful in previous school improvement efforts across the state, including four turnaround practices:

  • Creating a schoolwide community of practice through leadership and collaboration
  • Employing practices for improving instruction
  • Providing student-specific supports and instruction to all students
  • Providing social, emotional, and behavioral supports that create healthy learning environments

Source: Chiefs for Change. (2017). Evidence and Funding. State ESSA Plan Approved September 15, 2017. Retrieved from

New Mexico

The New Mexico Public Education Department distributes school improvement funds (i.e., ESEA section 1003 funds) through a competitive grant application. The awarding of funds is partially based on each district’s demonstration of alignment of resources to the state’s school improvement strategies. New Mexico’s education department provides CSI schools with a list of potential evidence-based interventions for school turnaround programs. If a CSI school chooses an intervention outside of the list, the district must demonstrate that the intervention falls into one of the three tiers of evidence-based practices as defined in ESEA.

Source: US Department of Education. (n.d.). New Mexico State Plan. State ESSA Plan Approved August 9, 2017. Retrieved from


The Nevada Department of Education will include a list of evidence-based interventions in its district application for school improvement funds (i.e., ESEA section 1003 funds). If a district selects from this menu, the state will expedite its review of its application; if an district includes an intervention or strategy that is not from the menu, it will be more thoroughly reviewed.

Source: Chiefs for Change. (2017). Evidence and Funding. State ESSA Plan Approved August 9, 2017. Retrieved from


Additional Resources1

Budget Hold’em for Schools (link is external) This resource from the Council of Chief State School Officers includes interactive exercises that allow district and school leaders to consider the thoughtful tradeoffs they must make to fund their priorities and meet their student and teacher needs. Modeled off a card game and grounded in the evidence base for various potential improvement strategies, the activity allows district and school teams to have rich conversations about what works best for their context.

CCSSO Principles of Effective School Improvement Systems, Deep Dive 7 (link is external) This resource from the Council of Chief State School Officers asks the question: Are you making effective and equitable use of existing resources, including not only federal, state, and local funding but also other resources such as time, staff, and community partners?

Decision Guide for Implementing ESSA: State Considerations for Effective Grant Programs (link is external) This resource from the Council of Chief State School Officers clarifies the ways in which the ESEA may require SEAs to alter their federal grant processes, including potential changes they will need to make to their policies and procedures, organizational structure, and staff roles and responsibilities.

ESSA Financial Transparency Reporting Requirements (link is external) This resource from the Building State Capacity and Productivity Center includes information on per-pupil expenditure, a tool to support school-level finance surveys, and a guide to using data to drive action steps to support overall system improvements.

Implementing Change: Rethinking School Improvement Strategies and Funding Under ESSA (link is external) This guide from Chiefs for Change is for SEAs committed to advancing ESSA’s new local flexibility and innovation focus, while also incentivizing districts to identify and implement evidence-based school improvement strategies and holding them accountable for results.

What Is Resource Equity? (link is external) This resource from Education Resource Strategies identifies how each dimension of resource equity is related to student outcomes and the typical drivers of inequities within school systems. The report also provides multiple ways districts and schools can increase equity through changing their resource allocation and includes a self-diagnostic to guide systems in identifying and addressing these resource inequities.

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Section 1: Needs Assessment Section 2: Strategy Selection Section 3: Grant Fund Distribution Section 4: Implementation and Progress Monitoring

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1 The inclusion of information or links on this site from sources outside the U.S. Department of Education is done for purposes of information-sharing only and does not imply endorsement of any such information, products, or services by the U.S. Department of Education. [Return]